Synchronous and Asynchronous Collaboration . . . Collaborate

Maynard, Mass.-based SiteScape Inc. has been in the business of providing Internet-based productivity solutions for a decade. But it got into the collaboration services businesses big-time when in 1999 it acquired AltaVista (division of Compaq/Digital Equipment)’s ‘team workspace’ collaboration product, Forum—both application and customer base—of which it had hitherto been a reseller and customizer.

According to Andy Fox, SiteScape’s vice president of corporate strategy, Forum “was the first web-based collaboration product. It’s been a web-based prod throughout its history,” in contrast to a number of local client/server products that have come and gone over the years. SiteScape currently boasts nearly a million Forum seats worldwide, including a 30,000-seat deployment for Shell.

What’s new?
Today, SiteScape announces the release of its latest—flagship—product, Forum ZX, that basically combines the features and benefits of Forum, with those of SiteScape’s other main product, Zon, a real-time collaboration package.

In case you’re not up on the nuances of the two fundamentally different approaches to network-based collaboration, ‘team workspace’ or asynchronous applications provide an electronic—in this case, web-based—’space’ where members of distributed task groups can share and edit documents and other data, chart the progress of tasks, and communicate in threaded discussions.

‘Real-time’ is all about communicating in the present, and centers around audio and ‘web’ conferencing. (Web conferencing being the sharing of screen-based elements, such as slide presentations or interactive ‘whiteboards.’) Other communications capabilities, such as instant messaging, presence awareness, calendar sharing, and contact management, can be tacked onto either type.

Essential elements
To dig a little deeper into the heavyweight product, Forum, it’s built around a workflow engine, according to Andy Fox. Workflows specify at a glance who must perform a task, what steps the task requires, and the current status of the work, so everyone involved is aware of what has happened and what still needs to happen.

“Without workflow, you basically have data sitting in a bucket,” Fox told “With workflow, you’re assigning people tasks, information is being moved; there’s a business process behind the content.” In Forum, workflows are built using menus and simple HTML forms.

Also important is the ability for workgroups to be able to share, review, and edit documents in a group context, in which check-in/check-out control and ‘versioning’ are crucial components. In the process of recording ‘deltas’ (changes), the document management system also creates a permanent history of document development—which in turn becomes a feature of so-called knowledge management.

Two heads: better than one
So, what’s the magic fairy dust of integrating asynchronous and real-time collaboration elements? It’s all about efficiency, productivity.

“Let me talk a little bit about the integration,” Fox said to “Let’s start with real-time collaboration: You try to schedule a meeting with a bunch of people; you try to find out when they’re available. You send out an email, you make phone calls; you try to track people down. Two weeks later you schedule your half-hour meeting. That’s the traditional real-time collaboration model,” he explained.

“Then it moved to ‘Can you do that quicker—instantly? Can you use presence?’ ” Fox continued.

Fox went on to explain that with common presence-enabled applications, like IM or peer-to-peer VoIP, you accumulate a buddy list of people you talk to all the time, but when it comes to expediting business processes, who you talk to all the time usually isn’t the right list to work from.

“Every time I want to hold a meeting, it’s going to be a different group of people, depending on the project, topic, etc. That’s where the merger of these two technologies comes in—what Forum ZX is all about,” Fox told VoIPplanet.

What you see is who you get
With Forum ZX, everyone who has ever taken an active part in a particular workspace automatically becomes part of the presence list for that project.

“You go to a team workspace—a place where people are sharing documents and holding discussions—and instead of seeing presence of ‘your buddies,’ you see presence of the people who are part of that work team,” Fox explained. “I can just go to the bottom of that web page, and say I want to schedule a meeting. I want to see who’s available right now. If their presence is green, I can see them. Click!”

“If I need to meet with people working on another project, I just go to the workspace for that project. Click!” Fox went on. “When you’re launching meetings—starting real-time collaboration from a team workspace—you know who’s there, and you can click to chat with them, to call them, to start a web conference with them—all from the context you’re looking at,” he concluded.

Rent or buy
SiteScape’s products are available both for purchase and as a hosted solution, WebWorkZone. According to Andy Fox, “large customers want to buy it. They want it on site, they want the security, they want to build applications” Purchasing the server begins to be a practical choice at 50 seats or so, Fox said, so smaller deployments probably are going to rely on the WebWorkZone alternative.

Summing up, Fox reiterated: “The idea of team collaboration is certainly growing dramatically in the marketplace. With the advent of what we’re doing—tying real-time collaboration into it—it certainly leads to a more productive environment. That’s what collaboration’s all about: productivity.”

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